May 26, 2013
June 2, 2013

Distant specks in the ocean triggered a revolution in scientific and political thinking, but it took time to grasp the magnitude of Darwin's achievement.

The Galápagos has always fascinated because of its isolation, otherworldliness, and unusual biology. So when a group of friends told us they were ready to go, we immediately signed on. Yes, Charles Darwin figures prominently in the archipelago's narrative, but it was the general weirdness of the place that was the draw.

The Islands proved to be even more interesting than anticipated, one reason being Darwin's shadow which crossed our path at every turn. Still, it took another five years before I finally did the reading that should have been done before going. That's when the significance of what this lone individual accomplished, so obvious on its face, bowled me over. 

Darwin's observations in the Galápagos caused him to begin questioning a prevailing belief system of his time. When he eventually published his theories, that system was replaced by his theories which are how we now see the world. Ernest Mayr, a leading figure in 20th century evolutionary biology, said the "acceptance of these ideas required an ideological revolution. And no biologist has been responsible for more—and for more drastic—modifications of the average person’s worldview than Charles Darwin."

How did one person successfully challenge and overturn the collective wisdom of the church, state, scientific establishment, academia and the media? How did he prepare himself for the backlash, survive it, and end up being buried in Westminster Abbey alongside Elizabeth I, Newton and Milton instead of being dismissed as a crank?

This log is about the eight days we spent in the Galápagos seeing some of what Darwin saw.  A separate blog can be found here describing the remarkable series of events that led to the publication of an idea that transformed the world

The Galápagos are located in the Pacific Ocean 600 miles west of Ecuador along the Equator. The 18 major islands and dozens of islets make up the archipelago, occupying an area of 3,100 square miles. Espanola Island, the southernmost, and Darwin, the northernmost, are 137 miles apart.

The islands have been created primarily from eruptions of lava and only partially by changes in tectonic plates or sea level.  The most recent eruption occurred in 2009.

Lava braids at Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island.

The landscape varies from primordial rock to rain forest to tourist town.

A jewelry store in Puerto Ayora.

The Galápagos teem with life, both in the water and on land, and one of their special characteristics is the number of endemic species which, despite their close proximity, vary depending on the island on which they are found.  That's why the Galápagos illustrates so well the concept of evolution.

There are 25,000 people living in this vast area, and they are concentrated in a few towns on a few islands.  The Ecuadorian government is struggling to maintain the area as a national park, doing what it can to regulate and restrict access.

Most of the time, we hardly saw signs of human activity as we traveled throughout the area.  But population growth coupled with all that humans bring with them--goats, pigs, dogs, cats, and rats as well as their plants--means the area is under constant assault from invasive species.

As in Darwin’s time, humans are not seen by most Galápagos species as predators.  We had to be careful where we walked so that we didn’t accidentally step on anything we shouldn’t.  While there, I didn't have a sophisticated camera with a long telephoto lens, just a cheap point-and-shoot. The close-ups of birds, sea lions, and iguanas you will see here were typically taken right within a couple of feet of them.

Darwin arrived in the Galápagos on the Beagle, a British naval research and surveying ship. She was 90 feet long and carried 74 men when she sailed from England. Tasked primarily to chart certain stretches of the South American coastline, her voyage lasted from 1831 to 1836 and resulted in the circumnavigation of the globe.

H.M.S. Beagle

Darwin was in his mid-twenties not sure of his path in life when he accepted an invitation to come aboard the Beagle as a naturalist.

Charles Darwin as a young man

His expedition spent five weeks in the Galápagos creating navigational charts. While the surveys were underway, Darwin was dropped off on on four different islands to investigate. When he stepped ashore on the first, the belief he held was one virtually every Christian at the time did, that God created all living beings in their present form at one moment in time within the last 10,000 years or so.  Because the species are immutable, the doctrine held, the form they are in is the form they have always been in and always will be in. By the time Darwin reached his second island, he began noticing evidence that caused him to begin questioning that.

During his voyage, Darwin wrote four times more geology than zoology notes and collected more than 2000 rock specimens because that was his primary interest.  But it was the focus on geology that may have opened his mind to biologic evolution.  As a welcome aboard present, the captain gave Darwin the first volume of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology which he read during the voyage.  A rising star in the British scientific community, Lyell, who would later become a close friend of Darwin's, propounded that “the shape of the earth’s crust is the result of gradual and ongoing processes rather than past catastrophic events as interpreted through the Bible.”  Darwin saw much evidence of that during the voyage.

We cruised the Galápagos much more comfortably in the National Geographic Islander, a 164 foot catamaran with a wide beam that carries 48 passengers. Among its many advantages, the light complement meant people could get into the Zodiacs quickly unlike the mob scene typical of a larger cruise ship.  

More information about the Islander can be found here.

During the day, the ship’s excellent guides would take us hiking, snorkeling, and on occasional kayak trips, or just scooting around on the Zodiacs, lecturing all the way.  There was typically at least one presentation a day on board plus a briefing on what was coming the next day.  After dinner, the Islander would get underway to the next destination, cruising all night to arrive at dawn. Here we are at Santiago Island, for example, very early in the morning already exploring.

By the end of our cruise, it was clear that it would be difficult to get a feel for the Islands if trips were done out of a single port because of the distances involved.  One of the attractions of the Galápagos and the reason they are so important from a scientific standpoint is that each island has evolved in distinctive ways with distinctive species even though they are relatively close to one another.  No two islands are the same age nor have the same characteristics, and you can’t get a feel for the diversity unless you are constantly changing islands. That’s why the small ship we cruised on provided an excellent experience.

Darwin visited the islands of San Cristobal, Floreana, Santiago and Isabela.  We did the first three and six additional ones as described in the following log.

Thus the several islands of the Galápagos Archipelago are quite a marvellous manner, by very closely related species; so that the inhabitants of each separate island, though mostly distinct, are related in an incomparably closer degree to each other than to the inhabitants of any other part of the world. Charles Darwin

We flew into San Cristobal Island in the Galápagos from Gauyaquil, Ecuador, and were aboard theship by lunch. Following the initial briefing, we did a short cruise and went ashore for a brief hike at Cerro Brujo. 

It confirmed that we had come to sparsely populated specks far, far out in the Pacific. Isolation is a characteristic of the Galápagos that overwhelms. Darwin wrote in his diary of its "desolate and frightful aspect," saying, "On a forlorn & weather beaten coast, the feelings partake more of horror than of wild delight." For us on our comfortable ship, surrounded by cheerful staff, and enjoying excellent accommodations, it was delight. But we knew we could easily leave at any time in a passanger jet. His mode of travel was far slower and more precarious.

San Cristobal was the first island that Darwin visited, and he came by this particular part of it pictured above and took samples from the volcanic dikes. While there he noticed Kicker Rock below, and speculated in his geology notes how it and Finger Hill shown above were formed.

Like Darwin, we learned that we could walk among the sea lions and sit relatively close to them as long as we didn’t get too near the mature males.  After a while, this became second nature, particularly when arriving and leaving islands using beaches covered with sleeping sea lions.  When standing around chatting before and after hikes, a conversation would be interrupted every now and then with a bark, “HEY, I’m here, give me some space.” 

A pup feeding.

The younger the sea lions, the more curious they were. The pups would often flop over to where we were to check us out.  

Sea lions are good natured as long as they aren’t too hungry, and while snorkeling they loved to zoom around and goof with us.  They seemed to be entertained by the flocks of clumsy humans slopping around in the water in their strange coverings and awkward appendages.

About 10,000 people live on the San Cristobal which is mostly National Park reserve, and Cerro Brujo is a National Park visitor site. Unfortunately, invasive species have spread over the entire island, and it is considered one of the most altered in the Galápagos, primarily from agriculture and goats. Still, studies have shown that the majority of the plants and animals that Darwin collected or noted from this island still survive.

Darwin began collecting on San Cristobal and eventually took back to England more botanical specimens from the Galápagos than any other group of organisms. Uncertain of what should be assembled, he said that he "just took every thing in flower blindly." One book describes how he ended up with "by far the largest and most diverse Galápagos plant collection that had ever been accrued." Years later, it led to a major publication by botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, entitled An Enumeration of the Plants of the Galapagos Archipelago. A leading 19th century scientist, Hooker would become one of his best friends and was instrumental in pushing him to write On the Origin of Species.

But the islands, though in sight of each other, are separated by deep arms of the sea, in most cases wider than the British Channel, and there is no reason to suppose that they have at any former period been continuously united. The currents of the sea are rapid and sweep across the archipelago, and gales of wind are extraordinarily rare; so that the islands are far more effectually separated from each other than they appear to be on the map. Charles Darwin

We arrived late in the afternoon on Espanola which is why some of these images may be a bit dark. The island is home to Darwin's finches, Galápagos hawks and large blue-footed and Nazca booby colonies, as well as several species endemic to the island, such as the wave albatross, Hood mockingbird, and Hood lava lizard. 

It is also one island where we had to be very careful where we stepped.

Red and black marine iguanas were all around us as we hiked the trail. Because it was late in the day in a winter month, these cold blooded reptiles, catching the late afternoon rays, were starting to pile on top of each other to help keep warm through the night.

Darwin's journals show him experimenting with the iguanas. He "carried one to a deep pool left by the retiring tide, and threw it in several times," but the iguana "invariably returned in a direct line to to the spot where I stood." He thought the iguana preferred land because it had "no enemy whatever on shore, whereas at sea it must often fall prey to the numerous sharks." Darwin didn't realize the long suffering reptile was just trying to stay warm.

The large birds neither budged nor flinched as we walked past or stared at them. They found us as curious as we found them. Here is a blue footed booby who can't stop staring at a woman wearing equally cerulean Crocks, impressed with her fashion sense.

Nazca boobies watching each other’s back.

With its seven and a half foot wing span, the waved albatross is a flying machine built for long distance cruising.  It can glide elegantly for hours over the ocean, but landings and take offs are another matter.  Imagine a glider having to land on a rocky island covered with bushes.  Not a pretty sight.  And to get the momentum to become airborne, some of these birds throw themselves off high cliffs.  Espanola is by and large the only island where this species breeds.  Here’s a mom sitting on her egg, enjoying the attention as we stare at her and the guide discusses her special characteristics.

A hawk watching for any opportunity we might stir up.

Back on the boat, the view from the upper deck of Espanola as the sun was setting. We're out there.

[H]ow has it happened in the several islands situated within sight of each other, having the same geological nature, the same height, climate, etc., that many of the immigrants should have been differently modified, though only in small degree. Charles Darwin

We arrived at daybreak at Floreana, took the Zodiacs to the shore and hiked to a beach where sea turtles lay their eggs. It was late in the season for that to be occurring, but our guides hoped we might get lucky. 

In the picture below, you can see the island's highlands in the distance. Its elevation exceeds 2,000 feet, and it was in those highlands on September 25, 1835, that Darwin's epiphany first began to materialize.

Along the way we saw the skeletal gray incense trees, or ghost trees.

And we passed a lagoon with flamingos who turn this color because of the crustaceans theyeat.

Arriving at the beach, we did get lucky.

A Galápagos Green Turtle, the only species of turtle that nests on the island, had crawled out of the ocean and was in the process of digging one to lay her eggs.

She was late because females typically lay their eggs at night after crawling up the beach past the high tide mark and digging a nest with their back flippers. She will then lay between 50 and 200 eggs before making her way back down to the ocean.

This frigate bird will have to wait over a month for the eggs to hatch before his first chance to grab a hatchling.

Five different ocean currents collide in the Galápagos, generating a rich diversity in marine life and making the snorkeling a kaleidoscope. Bringing an underwater camera would have been a good idea. Here is a barracuda in the shallows near the beach.

Today, only 100 or so people live on Floreana. When Darwin came ashore, there was a penal colony of 200 in the highlands whose residents were leading a Robinson Crusoe lifestyle living off the land. The acting governor was an Englishman by the name of Nicholas Lawson who had been in the archipelago for five years and knew it intimately. He invited the Beagle's Captain and Darwin to dine with him, eager to speak to those who spoke English and were interested in the area's geography.

High in the cool, moist upper reaches, both the Captain and Darwin, after spending months at sea and in the deserts of South America, were reminded of England. 

As they ate, mockingbirds scampered across the table, snatching scraps of meat. Darwin's notes show that one alighted on a cup of water he was holding and drank out of it. As it did so, he was struck by the fact that the mockingbirds on this island were larger and had different coloring than the ones he found on San Cristobal. He said that it caused him to "pay particular attention to their collection" everywhere he went in the Islands, but not enough to change his collecting habits.

When he arrived on Albemarle and James Islands, he found the mockingbirds differed yet again. On San Cristobal, his collecting had been done on the basis that specimens collected on one island in the archipelago would be representative of the species found on the others. But it would take these two additional islands before he understood the error of his curating. Still, by the time he left the archipelago, Darwin had acquired three new species, and there was actually a fourth on Espanlo Island, the one we had visited the day before but Darwin did not. 

This group of mockingbird species would later be termed an example of "adaptive radiation," a genus having a common ancestor but diversifying through geographical isolation. And twenty four years after leaving the Galápagos when Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, these mockingbirds were the only organisms from the Galápagos he specifically named in the book.

While on Floreana, Lawson also told Darwin about the tortoises in the archipelago and how they differed from one island to the next, saying the "Spaniards" could "pronounce from which Island any Tortoise may have been brought." It was nine months later when Darwin was reflecting on the mockingbirds that Lawson's description of the tortoises finally sunk in, and he was upset that he had not collected as he should have while in the Galápagos. 

No pristine territories today. We are on heavily inhabited Santa Cruz island because the forests and fields in its highlands are where the giant tortoises roam.  The geography catches the clouds, and the vegetation is far more lush than along the shore were we have typically explored thus far.

It’s hard to get a sense of the size of these 500 pounders in the photographs, but they are huge. And within a few minutes of watching them, you quickly come to the conclusion that film schools must teach courses in costume design on these islands.  Gee,wonder where the idea for ET’s head came from.  

And look at the protective scaling onthe legs of these tortoises.  Klingon body armor.  Think back on the skin and body features of the various iguanas pictured in this blog which must have inspired designers in dozens of Star Trek episodes.

We walked through groves of guava trees, and this tortoise, although a little menacing, seemed to be a strict fruitarian, his face coated with guava.

The Galápagos Giant Tortoise can live for more than 100 years, the oldest one recorded being 152.  It’s theorized that the original tortoises floating into the archipelago were of normal size.  Over centuries, they evolved into the massive creatures we see today because there was no need to hide from predators or compete with other animals for food. Once they spread throughout the archipelago, they evolved into the races seen today.

At one time there was thought to be 250,000 of these giants in the Galápagos among 15 different species.  Today, they’re only 15,000 left, representing 11 species because of the arrivals of predators and competing animals beginning in the 19th century—humans, rats, pigs and goats. Goats, for example, do such an excellent job of eating vegetation that there isn't any left for the tortoises. The tortoises were intensively harvested in the 19th century because their meat is tasty and they can store food and water very efficiently for months on end. That made them an excellent food source to bring aboard ships passing through the area.

We arrived at the islet of South Plaza at sunrise. After snorkeling among schools of fish and cavorting sea lions, we got into the Zodiacs for a hike on the Island. It has dense colonies of sea lions on one side, and spectacular cliffs on the other frequented by gulls, tropic birds, terns, shearwaters and boobies.

Here's our welcoming committee, greeting us as we work our way to shore.

While the younger pups are curious and playful, the mature males have other things on their minds.  Their primary task in life is assembling and maintaining a harem, and they let intruders know they are not welcome. Once they have assembled a harem, they can’t really take time off to hunt for food, otherwise someone will move in on them.  So they defend their domain until too exhausted and weak from lack of food to fend off a well-fed competitor in fighting trim.

The Islet has one of the last healthy populations of Galápagos land iguanas in the archipelago whose territory overlaps with that of marine iguanas.

Worried about becoming someone's next meal.

South Plaza is a beautiful island, and on this bright, sunny day with a mild breeze blowing, it turned out to be most everyone’s favorite place on the trip. 

Prickly pear cactus trees rise up from the rocky land covered by dense red mats of vegetation.

Soon all of us started trying to figure out where we could site the house for the best view.

But alas, never to be.  it is the birds and iguanas who have South Plaza to themselves.

A Sally Lightfoot crab bidding us adieu.

Leaving South Plaza, we headed to Sante Fe for the afternoon. It too has land iguanas, but of the three species found in the Galápagos, this one, Conolophus pallidus, is only found on Sante Fe, just a few miles away from South Plaza. Notice the differences between this one and the iguana on South Plaza.

Land iguanas can be large, up to three feet long and the males weighing over 50 pounds. If a hatchling survives all those trying to make a meal of it, life expectancy can be 50 years.

Whalers in the Islands regularly captured land iguanas for food, and between them and the cats it's a wonder that any survived. Darwin said of their white meat, "By those whose stomachs rise above all prejudices, it is relished as very good food." It sounds as if his stomach did not so rise.

With water in short supply, the cactus on these islands have adapted to nibblers... evolving a thick bark which we were told is really not seen on cactus anywhere else.

Back on board, we dined, not on land iguana, but on yet another fantastic meal of Ecuadorian food.

We arrived at Sombrero Chino at sunrise, a small islet off the southeastern tip of Santiago Island that features a 170 foot volcanic cone. 

Once the sun rose, the morning turned dark, and we headed into the channel between the two islands to snorkel among large schools of fish, sea lions and even a few penguins.

The Galápagos penguin is endemic to the Islands and the only one that lives north of the equator in the wild. They survive, barely, due to the cool temperatures resulting from the Humboldt Current and cool waters from great depths brought up by the Cromwell Current. When we were in the water, the penguins swam hurriedly past us like fully wound mechanical toys, making an odd clacking sound as they went. 

At one point, a large shark worked along the bottom ten feet beneath us. When I yanked my head from the water to look around, completely freaked out and assuming everyone would be dashing to shore, no one was giving it any notice but me. Just another docile Galápagos creature?

Santiago was where Darwin had another of moments questioning. As he climbed its highlands passing through woods of massive Palo Santo trees, the landscape changed to Guayavita trees as the elevation increased. Smelling this strongly aromatic tree, he realized that he had not seen any on Floreana. That seemed odd because he felt that a tree dominating the landscape of Santiago at the elevation where he was standing should have been present on other islands with the same elevation. His journal shows that when he expressed this observation to tortoise hunters on the island, they said, "Many of the islands possess trees and plants which do not occur on the others."

Because Santiago was the last island he was to visit in the Galápagos, he realized at this point that his collections would be missing important specimens. "Unfortunately, I was not aware of these facts till my collection was nearly completed." Continuing, he said that "it never occurred to me, that the productions of islands only a few miles apart, and placed under the same physical conditions, would be dissimilar."

In the afternoon we headed to Sullivan Bay named after the Beagle's First Officer. Our course took us through a seascape that looked like the beginning of time..

...past islets that were calderas.

Arriving at Sullivan, we saw a site dominated by lava from a relatively recent volcano, one that probably occurred less than 100 years ago.

The lava patterns were hypnotizing, and it was difficult to stop taking photographs of all their various contortions.  I’ve spared you by only including three, but you can see more here.

There was a mist soaking us, something the locals call the garúa, which Darwin described as thick drizzle. It did wonders to enhance what little light was being reflected by the lava.

But at the end of the day, we were glad to be back aboard the ship.

In the Galápagos Archipelago, many even of the birds, though so well adapted for flying from island to island, are distinct on each; thus there are three closely-allied species of mocking thrush, each confined to its own island. Charles Darwin

Genovesa Island at the north end of the archipelago teemed with bird life.  If this photograph were larger, you would see hundreds of birds flying over the island. It's known by the apt name of Bird Island because of the great variety of nesting birds that may be seen there, including masked boobies, red-footed boobies, Galápagos owls, frigates, swallow-tail gulls, lava herons, and the rare lava gulls.

The photograph above was made in the island's caldera, but a better sense of the island can be seen in this photograph from a Cornell University's geology page.

A University of Oregon page describes the island as "consisting of a single volcano, which emerges only 200 feet above sea level. A breached caldera on the south side of the island forms Darwin Bay. A small lake-filled crater is located in the center of the island."

Coming ashore we were met with more bird life than on any other island. Frigate birds courting...

Red footed boobies, one perched on a bush with its webbed feat which was impressive, the other nesting.

Swallow-tailed gulls...

And Nazca boobies.

What was amazing about this island was that except for the photograph of the owl below, all of the closeups were taken within three feet of where they were perched or standing.

Darwin's notes indicated that birds like these were of little interest to him. Some of these species are synonymous with the word Galápagos, plus visitors today marvel at their behaviors and adaptations, but Darwin never mentioned them. Two biologists point out Darwin's strong interest in geology, saying that's what he was focused on when he stepped ashore each island. They also say, "Nineteenth-century naturalists made their names by finding organisms new to science, not by remarking on those that had already been described."  

During the afternoon, we took the Zodiacs to another part of the island for a hike.

There, the owls waited for birds nesting in small tunnels and cracks in the rocks to emerge.

We arrived at the airport on San Cristobal island and departed from the one at Baltra, an island which is not much more than an airport.

Our trip was seven days which passed far too quickly. At the end of it, we wished we were moving on to other islands in the archipelago. Isabela, for example, looks fascinating. We felt as Darwin did, "It is the fate of most voyagers, no sooner to discover what is most interesting in any locality, than they are hurried from it." 

As far as the quality of our National Geographic experience, our staterooms were comfortable, the food excellent, the guides and staff top notch. We felt as if we were at well run summer camp in the way things were kept moving all day long, one event after the other. Up and at 'em for breakfast. Off the ship for a guided hike, then into the Zodiacs for snorkeling. Back for lunch. Siesta. Into the Zodiacs for another hike with the guides. Back on the boat for a lecture. Dinner. There was no wasted time which was good for something this expensive.

With respect to the cruising conditions, this is an ocean voyage. There are few real harbors in the Galápagos.  Most of the anchorages were roadsteads which by definition are unprotected anchorages along a shoreline.  Fortunately, the seas were calm when we were there, so most everyone avoided getting sea sick.  If you take kids, they need to be good swimmers because we were snorkeling in strong currents.  The water is cool, and a lot of us had skins under our wetsuits which is highly recommended. They made being in the water much more pleasant.  And you want to go snorkeling. The water is clear, the marine life abundant, the sea lions gregarious.

If the Galápagos are not already on your list, please consider adding this amazing place. And, if you're still with me, please be sure to read my blog on Darwin.

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